President Andrew Johnson's Impeachment Hearing

Find out about the first Presidential Impeachment hearings of Andrew Johnson in 1868

The 16th of May, 1868 was a landmark one in the history of the United States Presidency. On that day the President of that nation came within just one Senate vote of being impeached. That one vote would have removed the President from office. President Andrew Johnson, who took office upon the tragic assassination of Abraham Lincoln, had long angered the U.S. Congress with his refusal to accept the First Reconstruction Act. The Act was to divide the Southern states into military districts with their own military commanders. The articles of impeachment, however dealt with Johnson's dismissal of his Secretary of State, Edwin Stanton, as well as with so called inflammatory speeches made by the President during a national tour. The most serious charge, however, suggested that Andrew Johnson was involved in the assassination of President Lincoln.

Andrew Johnson joined Abraham Lincoln on the 1864 Republican ticket primarily to gain the support of the pro war Democrats. Johnson was an ardent Democrat and an owner of slaves. Johnson had a firm view of those states who had seceded from the union. He regarded them as traitors, guilty of treason. Before his death Lincoln had steered the country on a course of reconciliation and healing. Many people in government, particularly among the throngs of the Democrats, saw his stand as being too soft. When Johnson took over the reins they were hopeful that a much harder line towards the Rebel States would now be adopted.

Johnson, however, was of the view that the only job for the Federal Government was to provide the Southern States with an opportunity for free Government to re-emerge. The radical Republicans and Democrats in Government, however, took an entirely different view. To them the Southern States represented a conquered nation. They were to be treated as conquered people and, furthermore, punished for their uprising. It didn't take long for these opposing viewpoints to flare up into hostility.

Johnson did not want Southern blacks - freed by Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation - to get the vote. In the draft of the Plan for the Administration of North Carolina, the Cabinet was split over allowing Blacks to vote for delegates to a State Convention. Johnson came down on the no vote side, angering many people, including his Secretary of War Edwin Stanton.

Then in January 1866, Johnson vetoed two important pieces of Legislation concerning Black people - The Freedmen's Bureau and the Civil Rights Acts. On a Senate vote, Congress managed to override Johnson's veto on the Civil Rights Act. This was a major embarrassment for the President and a portent of major confrontation.

Criticism of the President came swiftly. In retaliation, Johnson gave a series of speeches around the country in which he called his critics traitors. In the Spring of 1867, the Congress again overrode the President's veto to the Freedman's Bureau Bill. They also announced a proposed 14th Amendment to the Constitution which would impose conditions on the rebel states for readmission into the Union. Johnson immediately opposed the 14th Amendment and campaigned for it's defeat. The Reconstruction Act of 1867 also passed over Johnson's veto.

Moves were made to begin Impeachment proceedings against Johnson. But these efforts were still not strong enough and they floundered. However, the President's alleged violation of the Tenure Act would resurrect the Impeachment move. The Tenure Act prohibited the President from removing from office any officials whose appointment required Senate approval. On February 21, 1868, however, Johnson did exactly that to his Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton. An impeachment hearing was now inevitable.

On March, 30th 1868 opening arguments began in the Impeachment trial of Andrew Johnson. Prosecuting lawyer Benjamin Butler recounted Johnson's dealings with Stanton and his inflammatory speeches, referring to Johnson as the "╦ťelect of an assassin.' Documentary evidence and witnesses were brought in to support the 11 articles of impeachment.

Counsel for the President was Benjamin Curtis. He argued that the Tenure Act did not cover Stanton and that to convict him on such grounds as giving inflammatory speeches would be a violation of his freedom of speech.

After six weeks of hearing, the Chief Justice Salmon P Chase, along with 54 Senators, retired to consider their verdict. On March 16, 1868 Court was called to order. By just one vote, that of Senator Ross, Andrew Johnson escaped the impeachment that would have seen his name go down as the first President to be removed from office.

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